Theme concerts seem to be all the rage these days – the objective being to find common threads that can pull together works from different centuries, different continents and different cultures into a reasonably cohesive structure. All are exercises in imagination, sometimes highly successful and at other times merely cover-ups for sloppy programming. In this case, the pairing of works related to the four seasons worked quite well – although slight modifications might have tightened the delivery and effectiveness of the theme.
There are many musical works dedicated to the seasons, by Haydn, Glazunov, Piazzolla, and of course, Vivaldi. Written for the young ladies in the "Pietà" orphanage in Venice but lost for two centuries, Vivaldi's Four Seasons are now his most popular works. Comprised of four concertos, each with three movements, for solo violin, strings, and continuo (bass line and harmonization by a plucked instrument, usually a harpsichord), each concerto is descriptive of various characteristics an Italian might have felt in that particular season. Some examples of this "program music" are the birds of springtime, a summer thunderstorm, an autumnal hunt, and shivering of peasants in winter
Contrast this somewhat sheltered appreciation of nature with the modern realist view of the Italo-Argentine composer and performer Ástor Piazzolla, originator of what became known as "Tango Nuevo." He first wrote "Verano Porteño" ("Summer of the Port-Inhabitant") as a score for a play, and the idea for writing pieces describing other seasons occurred several years later. Originally scored for a quintet which included bandoneòn (a button-keyed accordion), violin/viola, cello/bass, electric guitar, and piano, tangos such as these had found their origins in the bars and bordellos of Buenos Aires (see our review of "Tango").
Enter the magician, the alchemistic with the ability to catalyze, meld and transform! Leonid Arkadievich Desyatnikov, a Russian composer born in 1955, toyed with the idea of relating the Vivaldi Four Seasons to the four pieces (each about five minutes) Piazzolla had written about the seasons of the inhabitants of Buenos Aires. Re-orchestrating the original bandoneón band version for string quintet, he used his poetic license to insert appropriate quotations of Vivaldi's original, thereby tying the two works together, and conflating Piazzolla's four pieces into a larger work, The Four Seasons of Porteñas. Compared to the Vivaldi, the Piazzolla/Desyatnikov is rowdy and a bit naughty! (Desyatnikov has since composed his own Russian Four Seasons for solo violin, soprano, and chamber orchestra.)
Maestro Robert Moody chose to alternate (as has Russian violinist Gidon Kremer in his landmark recording grouping both the Vivaldi and the Piazzolla/Desyatnikov) Vivaldi and Piazzolla, unfortunately not allowing us to compare two "Springs," for example, but pairing antitheses, "Spring" with "Autumn." And it would have been nice to flip the order in the second half of the concert, starting each pair with Piazzolla and giving the last word to Vivaldi and the big conclusion of his "Inverno" ("Winter").
The Sphinx Organization, now 13 years old, holds an annual classical music competition for African-American and Latin-American soloists. The winner in 2008 was the soloist for the Vivaldi portion of the concert, 24-year-old Danielle Belén, playing a 1709 Gagliano violin on permanent loan from the Mandell Collection of Southern California. Ms. Belén plays with grace, subtlety and charm. She has a beautiful tone, great intonation and a wonderful command of technique and dynamics. This was thrilling Vivaldi!
The soloist for the Piazzolla version of the Four Seasons was the Winston-Salem Symphony's concertmaster, Corine Brouwer. She also has a phenomenal technique, warm tone, and excellent intonation. And she mastered the unusual shrieks and squawks the Desyatnikov version assigns the soloist, as well as the subtle musical innuendos and tender tongue-in-cheek parts of tango Nuevo. One might have wished for a bit more Argentine intoxication and some Malbec-ian euphoria; I certainly wish the enthusiasm of the orchestra hadn't covered whole passages of solo playing.
The string orchestra, except for the excess mentioned above, was very attentive to dynamics, especially the softer passages in the Vivaldi. Brooks Whitehouse, principal cello, was outstanding both in his role as continuo in the Vivaldi and as occasional soloist throughout the concert.
A brief sartorial note, alluded to by an audience member during the short Q & A session after the concert: our Maestro wore a dark open hip-length chemise over a black tee-shirt with tux trousers, looking the part of a Caribbean-cruising Lothario, while the orchestra was dressed in its most formal eveningwear, white tie and tails. Perhaps next time, fitting the music, the orchestra gentlemen could dress as 18th-century monks (in honor of Vivaldi, also a monk) while the ladies might wear clothing more appropriate to the tango!